Given its position among continental Europe’s poorest countries, it is unsurprising that poverty in Macedonia remains a persistent, pervasive issue. In a July 10 meeting, seven Central European member states called on the E.U. to accelerate the accession process of Balkan countries to the body, citing security concerns. The prospect of E.U. membership has been a main driver of reform in the region since the end of the Balkan wars, with Serbia and Montenegro currently in accession talks and Albania and Macedonia recognized as candidate countries. As the western Balkans look toward European Union membership, Macedonia must further pursue measures to eliminate poverty within its borders by addressing the following causes:

Despite significant economic growth over the past ten years, the rate of unemployment in Macedonia remains high, sitting between 25 and 31 percent until it fell to 23.7 percent in 2016. Though employment is growing, labor force participation has declined, and those who are unemployed remain that way for extended periods of time. Of the unemployed population, 81 percent of people have been so for the long term. In addition, labor force participation is declining, particularly among the younger population. The World Bank reports that this decrease has been occurring gradually since 2012.

Rising real wages, growth in unskilled labor markets and increasing relevance of education programs had a notable impact on decreasing poverty in 2016. Poverty in Macedonia has declined from 34.3 percent in 2013 to 30.7 percent at the end of last year. As the 2016 programs continue to grow, the rate is expected to continue to fall.

Government corruption 
While corruption is an internationally recognized vulnerability of the countries in the western Balkans, citizens of Macedonia have placed it among the most important issues facing their country, ranking it just below unemployment and poverty. Exposure varies significantly across regions, but, on average, 10.8 percent of Macedonians aged 18 to 64 have been directly involved in corruption or exposed through a member of their household. Such high prevalence is concerning, but what is more important is that nearly a third of bribes are offered by citizens without solicitation from public officials. Bribes requested by officials, directly or indirectly, account for about 50 percent of all those paid.

The fact that citizens are willingly devoting what is often a significant portion of their resources to corruption indicates a fundamental lack of faith in the government’s operating ability. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reports that 50 percent of citizens who participate in bribery intend to hasten procedure, 12 percent do so to ensure an outcome, 11 percent pay to receive preferential treatment and 12 percent pay bribes that lack a specific purpose. Improving the functions of Macedonia’s institutions will ultimately work to eliminate corruption, as the population begins to trust their bureaucratic services. However, corruption within the government remains a pervasive issue and must be addressed before such reforms can occur.

Political tensions
Macedonia has faced a tumultuous quarter-century since the breakup of Yugoslavia, leaving the state prone to internal political conflict which has led to instability and poverty in Macedonia. Macedonia’s democracy lacks healthy political-party competition, which has forced its government to often act as a clientelistic service rather than a presiding body. There has also been a resurgence of nationalism in Macedonia, prompting many international media outlets to declare a new ethnic crisis in the spring of 2017. While this so-called crisis ultimately culminated in unrest similar to many other periods in Macedonia, tensions along ethnic lines persist and are regularly exploited by the international community.

Macedonia’s ongoing efforts to bolster its labor force through developing opportunities for job-relevant education demonstrate that the state has recognized the importance of cultivating its human capital as a method for raising its international status as a trade partner and regional player. As the future of Europe moves toward the center of the world stage, the transparency of the Macedonian government and the country’s internal tensions will be under ever-increasing scrutiny, which will likely push Macedonia to seek improvement in both of these areas. While there is still progress to be made toward eliminating poverty in Macedonia, it is clear that the state has recognized the areas where it can improve, and, as pressures to join the E.U. continue to mount, Macedonia will only have further incentive to work toward this goal.

Alena Zafonte

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